Dead Records Part I by Steven Savile and Ryan Reid

DEAD RECORDS 1 BY RYAN REID AND STEVEN SAVILE

 

Auto-Tune was born from the sentiment in that old Coke commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing”. I remember hearing execs bang on about how it could save any band–but it turned the musical landscape into a wasteland of bland, manufactured art, if you ask me. Unfortunately, ‘bland manufactured art’ would be a step up for the Fortunate Fridays. There’s bad, there’s ironically bad, and there’s just bloody appalling. These guys were bad, and alas not the kind of ‘bad’ that would have garnered a couple of million YouTube hits and a small fortune for me. No, they were just run-of-the-mill talentless kids who looked good even if they sounded like they were murdering kittens. They didn’t have Obi-Wan–Auto-Tune was their only hope.

I remember them well. For all the wrong reasons. But hey, they did finally make the headlines. The studio was a furnace on the day they died. I’d turned off the air conditioning while the band was recording to avoid the sound of the fan finding its way onto the track–even if I’d have welcomed the distraction–and Frankie Dubon, the lead singer, wore a wife-beater that was plastered to his chest with sweat. Hell, his beard was sweating. It wasn’t a good look. It wasn’t Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart sweaty. It was more like one of those fat ’80s darts players sweaty. When we did turn on the air between tracks, the studio smelled of shit and chemical effluent from that font of all things holy, the River Thames.

The band had been rehearsing for six hours straight, and I had both elbows on the soundboard and my head in my hands. That’s my go-to position when I’m wondering how the hell I can transform the crud I’m listening to into the kind of crud people will pay for. I needed something. A win. I needed a song that Absolute or Capital Radio would spin. This wasn’t it. All the cowbell in the world wouldn’t save it.

I left instructions for them to rehearse the next track and headed for the bathroom down the hall, more to clear my mind than to make a statement about the quality of their music. No bones about it, the music industry had gotten rough for small time producers like me. The bands I signed either got enough traction to go with a big label and leave me behind, or they went nowhere. Either way, I made no money, and renting studio time wasn’t cheap. The Fortunate Fridays were a gamble. They’d hired me as both their manager and producer, and I’d managed to sneak a line into their contract that specified that if they signed with someone else, I’d get ten percent in perpetuity. So there you have it, my incentive to see them succeed. In gambling terms they were a dead cert; couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, but looked mighty pretty when they weren’t sweating like overweight beer drinking ‘sportsmen’.

I’d never gambled on a band before, but losing Michelle did a number on me. She hadn’t been a gold-digger, not like in the song, but she hadn’t liked being broke neither. I damned near killed myself trying to put together a winning band while we were together, and that drive persisted even now that she was living in Essex with her sister. Only, I didn’t gamble for her anymore, not even to show her up. It was just so that I wouldn’t have to face the crushing realization that she might be right. That the industry that had let itself be guided by a commercial jingle aired thirty years before hadn’t left me behind. . That’s how I’d come to approach Yvegeny Dolgov about a loan to cover studio time, pressing some CDs and hiring the equipment. That’s how Dead Records was born.

Look, let’s not beat around the bush, I need you to trust me, so that means I have to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and all the warty bits. Drugs are a fact of life in my profession. When the drummer says “Man, I need a fix,” I’m the guy who has to take care of it. I get the gear from Martin Fiddle. Martin gets it from a paranoid schizophrenic in a one-bedroom apartment in Kings Cross, who gets them from another guy, who gets it from someone who somehow wound up in Yevgeny  Dolgov’s pocket. That’s just the way of the world.

No one knew much about Dolgov back then. He was an international man of mystery. Came into London from the Caucasus which, he liked to say, made him one of the only true Caucasians in London. If you knew what was good for you, you laughed when he said that. Yevgeny had money. Lots of it.

Men in my position should be scared to take Dolgov’s money. To them, self-preservation is an instinct. To me, it’s a skill. I figured I knew the real Dolgov and that underneath that mafioso veneer he was just a businessman, and businessmen are predictable. In my defense, sometimes I’m not all that bright. My plan was to borrow a sum in the low five figures and then, if the Fortunate Fridays bombed, run to Africa or Indonesia–someplace where it would cost him more to chase me down than the amount I’d borrowed. Business 101. I was banking on him writing off the debt.  Of course, I might have to spend the rest of my life as a beachcomber, but there are worse lives out there. I could see myself propping up some Tiki bar somewhere, listening to ’80s music and thinking of better days when I coulda been a contender.

I was standing in front of a urinal in the bathroom down the hall from Rainmaker Studios–that was the name of the place I’d hired, of course. The idea, of course, was that they’d make it rain money on their clients, but it felt more like a golden shower just a few minutes later, when a stall door opened behind me. The smell hit me like a punch to the gut, but it wasn’t what you’d expect. This was more like roadkill baked in the sun. I gagged and shifted positions, spraying my foot. Great. Always good to piss yourself before the first sign of danger. Footsteps sounded behind me, wingtips on tile, slow and regular. The tap spat and then hissed. After a moment it squeaked off. Two quick tugs on the paper towel dispenser.

I was cold, and for a moment it was as quiet as a grave. I wanted nothing more than to zip up and make a break for the door, but I couldn’t move. I just stood there and dangled, long since drip-dried.

The silence clamped bony fingers around my spine and squeezed.

More footsteps. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man dressed all in black open the door with a paper towel, crunch it up and toss it into the silver dustbin beside the door before he left. The reek didn’t go with him. The place smelled like someone had crashed a garbage truck into a morgue. I washed my hands three times, and then stepped gingerly into the hall and looked both ways. Nothing but cheap carpet, fluorescent lighting and a row of doors. I forced myself shrug it off. I thought I’d been alone in the bathroom and I wasn’t. End of story. Nothing to be afraid of. It’s not like Yevgeny was going to come collecting before I’d even banked his check.

As the fear faded, anger surged in.

I was angry at myself for jumping at shadows and for the sense of helplessness I’d felt while that shadow had washed his hands. As I marched down the hallway, my anger turned itself on the Fortunate Fridays who weren’t rehearsing. They’d never master that bridge if they didn’t practice. Not that pulling off one decent transition would save them from discount rack hell. I came up with several choice phrases to hurl their way and even resolved to threaten to walk away from the project, though I never would. Not with Dolgov’ money on the line. They didn’t know that, though. I was their golden ticket. Poor deluded fools, all of us.

The lead singers brains were splattered all over the drummer’s chest, and his body draped grotesquely over the drum kit.

That, my friends, wasn’t what I expected to walk in on. Believe me. Maybe a groupie blowing the band one at a time, that kind of blowing brains out is pretty much par for the course, but the whole literal thing, not so common.

The drummer himself was nowhere to be seen.

The door to the live room wasn’t much more than splinters, one of which protruded from the rhythm guitarist’s chest. He wasn’t even part of the band. He was just some session musician I’d hired for the day.

I mean, sure, it was probably doing the world a favor, but hell’s teeth, couldn’t they have waited until I’d gotten the full CD in the bag? Posthumous releases had cachet. There would have been a killing to be made there. Erm. Well, another one.

I knew on an abstract level that I should be crying or puking or calling the cops, but all I could do was stand there and think about the money. Not Frankie, not the studio musician, not even the recording studio. The money. How was I going to explain this to Dolgov? Let’s face it, I was fucked, and not in the good way.

I placed an anonymous call to the good boys at the Met and split. I didn’t bother trying to clean the place or get rid of my DNA–my name was all over the booking logs and time sheets and well, I wasn’t guilty, I was just frightened. No one would hold running for my life against me, surely?

I checked into a cheap B&B in Queensway. The room smelled of sweat and sex, and when I adjusted the temperature, my hand came away from the thermostat covered in a black oily substance I couldn’t identify. In the room next door I could hear one of the Thai ladyboys doing their thing with a very grateful punter. It all sounded a bit S&M with the whole “Yes, mistress” thing going on through the paper-thin walls. I threw my suitcase on the room’s single bed and then, worried about bedbugs, found a luggage rack in the closet and moved it there.

I took a seat on a threadbare chair in the corner and begun hunting for a Wi-Fi signal with my laptop when I heard my neighbor saying, “Lick it off my boots, slave.”

Excellent.

Least I wouldn’t be forced to sit around in fifty shades of awkward silence.

My laptop displayed a list of available networks, but surprise, surprise, they were all locked. I threw the laptop on the bed and, going old school, tried to pick up the phone. It, too, was locked, this time literally. A keyed deadbolt kept the handset firmly planted on the hook. Trusting souls these B&B folks.

“Hello?” This time there was a knock accompanying the greeting, and no mention of servitude, licking, or anything else. I stared at the point on the wall where the knock had originated for a long time, torn between my British instinct to be polite and my record producer’s desire to tell him to fuck off.

Finally, I settled on something in between. “Um, yeah, hello. You wouldn’t happen to know the Wi-Fi password, would you? I’m trying to buy an airline ticket.”

There was a pause. “Where are you going?”

Excited by the prospect of obtaining said password I obliged him. “None of your fucking business.”

The voice was timid. “Yes, well, of course… It’s just that I’m a little… ah… stuck here. I was hoping you might be able to help me out.”

“Tit for tat,” I said. I wondered if he appreciated my wordplay. I did. I thought it was fan-fucking-tastic all things considered. I mean, making stupid jokes less than an hour after walking in on Slaughterhouse 5… that takes a special kind of man.

“The phone in my room is locked. Could you place a call for me on the payphone at the end of the hall?”

“Can’t your mistress help you out? Ah, screw it.” There was something in the way he spoke that touched me. Too proud to outright beg, he was doing so all the same. “Look, I can’t leave the room right now for…reasons. So how about I e-mail someone for you? Next best thing, right?”

There was kind of a weird hissing sound through the wall. “I think so…yes. The Wi-Fi password is on a card on the room fridge.”

Of course it was. Idiot, I cursed myself, snatched at the card, and then entered the password onto my laptop. It billed my credit card an outrageous twenty pounds for a day’s access. There was no hourly option. Once online, I navigated to my travel agency’s page. Disappointed by the price of a ticket to Jakarta, I decided on a safari someplace remote. Chad, perhaps. I’d heard Entebbe was nice this time of year.

“Don’t you need the address?” said the voice on the other side of the wall.

I winced. Fine. Okay, you got me. I hadn’t planned on helping Mr. Slave out. But a deal’s a deal. I’d send his e-mail. How long could that take? He gave me the address and then began to dictate.

 

Dearest Jenny,

Daddy thinks of you always. Have you been getting the teddies that I’ve been sending? I want desperately to tell you that I will be home in time for your first day in school, but the doctors say that I need to get well before I can see you. I hope that Ms. Fitzhenry is treating you well, and that she will eventually accept my calls. Remember to brush your teeth so that I can see your beautiful smile when I return.

All my love,

Daddy.

 

I didn’t hit send. The miserable old bastard was lying to his kid. He wasn’t in hospital, he was staying in a cheap motel in the arse-end of London being spanked silly by Ladyboys. What a prick. “Sent,” I lied.

“Thank you,” he said, and then fell silent.

I hunted around the travel website for a bit. South Africa was too…accessible. And Dolgov could have contacts there for all I knew. I decided on Ghana. It was small and well-run. The climate was hot, but not harsh, and the small amount of cash I had left to my name would go a long way there. Best of all, the official language was English, one of the three languages I was fluent in (the others being love and bullshit). I bought a one-way ticket, booked a hotel room in the capital, and then closed the laptop.

The TV had a coin slot in it, and I had nothing but plastic. I had an early flight in the morning so, after painstakingly checking the mattress and the legs of the bed for bugs, I got into bed.

I’ve never had too much difficulty in falling asleep–it’s a gift–but that night was hellish. The overhead fan beat the air and orange light from the streetlamp outside filtered through the blinds, painting bars on the wall. My companion in the next room said nothing else, but I could occasionally hear cockroaches skittering through the wall that separated us.

Upstairs were having a party though. If you can call it that. I think they must have been making a movie, or they were Emo hookers who kept yelling cut for fun.

I awoke not realizing that I’d fallen asleep.

The alarm clock glared 4:30 a.m. at me in angry red digits. A car motor was idling nearby. Unable to get back to sleep, I rose and separated the blinds with a finger. My room was on the second floor, allowing me a view of the jet-black Jag that was parked across the street from where I was. Way too pricey for this place, so it was either a rich boy wanting a walk on the wild side, Lou Reed-style, or it belonged to a drug dealer living in one of the flats. Curious, I glanced down the walkway, and my heart froze.

A man was coming towards me. He was tall and pale and covered in the blood of the Fortunate Fridays. They weren’t the luckiest Wednesdays really, all things considered.

I backed away from the window and nearly tripped over a bed post. How had they found me? Had my travel agent ratted me out? Surely not. I looked around the room. TV. Fridge. Bathroom. Door. I needed to get out of there and the man in black was blocking the only exit.

Window?

I snatched up my laptop and leapt over the bed. The bathroom had a frosted window set in the wall above the toilet, but it was the size of my fist. Ventilation only. No exit there. That left one other option.

“Hello?” I called through the door between my room and Mr. Lover Man next door, risking as loud a whisper as I dared. “Hello?”

Centuries flew by.

Finally, an answer. “Hello?”

“Look, I really don’t mean to be an inconvenience, but I was wondering if you could open the door?”

“Oh no. No. That’s not possible. Sorry. We can talk though, if you’d like? It gets terribly lonely in here sometimes.”

I glanced at the entrance of the room. Was that a shadow moving across the floor, beneath the door?

“I don’t want to fucking talk. I need you to open the fucking door!”

“Look, you seem like a reasonable chap, and I’d really like to oblige, but it’s not safe. I’m diseased, you see. Just like I said in the e-mail you sent.”

“You’re not fucking diseased. You’re Mistress Donkey-Dick’s love slave. I don’t care. I’m not judging you, just open the fucking door!”

“Well, then.” He sounded offended. “I bid you goodnight.”

I banged on the door with my fist. “Okay wise-guy, remember I have got little Jenny’s e-mail address and I’m not afraid to use it.” Not my finest hour, I admit. “If you don’t open this door right now, I’ll–” What? What was I going to do, show her incriminating photos of daddy dearest? I’d have to get through the door for that. I just trailed off and let the sentence hang in the air. Let his imagination do its worst.

The bolt turned in the partition door, and it opened a crack.

Something dark moved on the other side. All I could smell this time was mushrooms and wet sawdust. I was really beginning to hate my nose.

“Close your eyes,” he said.

“Honestly, you ain’t got nothing I haven’t seen before,” I muttered, and instead of closing my eyes, slammed my shoulder against the door. It flew open, knocking him back on what I believed was his pasty white arse. I got the fleeting impression of something oval-shaped collapsing onto the bed before I turned and closed the door behind me. I realized that I was still in the boxers I’d slept in. I hadn’t had time to dress, and my luggage was in the other room. My only earthly possession was the laptop I’d taken with me. Boxers isn’t my best look. I certainly wouldn’t get as far as Heathrow without something a bit more conservative.

I waited with my ear pressed against the door until I heard someone try the door in my room. Sometimes thin walls can be a blessing, I guess. There was a crash. The man in black had kicked it in. That wasn’t going to look good on my bill. Still, I wasn’t planning on sticking around long enough to pay it. Time to make a sharp exit.

I turned and saw my neighbor for the first time. A giant, six-foot-tall cockroach, he was lying flat on his back on the bed, one wing partly extended from underneath his shell. Six legs made circles in the air. His face was a horrific mixture of insect and human. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” was about the sum of my wisdom.

He ceased his struggle to right himself and collapsed backward, staring at the ceiling. “I did warn you… the whole metamorphosis thing can be a real pain. Still got a good forty-eight hours of half-man, half-roach left… then when my transition’s done, I’ll finally be myself. Will you…be staying long?”

“Um, no.” I glanced at the door, strangely concerned that if I ran now, he would think that I was running away from him. “I think a metamorphosis is something you should go through alone. You don’t need me watching. I’d love to stay, obviously, in other circumstances, but I have a…thing.”

“There are clothes in the nightstand.” Those were the last words he uttered to me. I snatched up a pair of pants and made for the door. I stopped with my hand on the handle.

“Look, I, uh.” I set my laptop on the floor. “I’ll trade you the laptop for the clothes. The password is ‘BonzoDog’. You can send Jenny e-mails whenever you’d like.”

I really didn’t want to think about what the ‘mistress’ had been really doing with him, or what he’d had to lick from where. Some things you’re just better off not knowing.

With that, I was out the door.

I didn’t stop to struggle into the jeans until I made the landing between floors. They were big. My neighbor had been on the portly side before his transmogrification.

The Jag had blocked my Jetta into its parking stall, rather pointlessly, since the black sports car would eat my little compact for breakfast in a race. Of course, the Jag was still idling, which meant the keys were in the ignition. The vast majority of crimes in this country are opportunist in nature. Who am I to buck the trend?

The interior of the Jag was done up in crimson leather and a comically big-headed vampire bobble-head nodded at me from the dash as I slid into the driver’s seat. That really should have been a warning sign. It was a standard transmission, and I felt the engine growl at me as I depressed the clutch and shifted her into gear. I took my other foot off the brake and began to seesaw the clutch and gas.

Of course, I stalled it.

There’s nothing like trying to make a quick getaway in a stolen car to make you heavy on the clutch.

The man in black stepped onto the balcony above me. His eyes were dark pits that looked down on me from on high. I waved, thinking, What the fuck, he can’t stop me now. I really had to stop thinking like that. It’s like I cursed every situation.

The cheap, iron French balcony railing twisted under his grip as he leapt over it.

His overcoat flared open, revealing military-style gun belts and a bowie knife strapped to his leg.

I really wished I hadn’t waved.

He landed gracefully on the pavement below, and the coat closed around him like a living thing.

I felt sick.

I jammed my foot down on the clutch and twisted the key in the ignition, willing the car to start.

The engine roared to life.

I stomped on the gas pedal.

Nothing subtle. The time for subtlety was long gone.

Tires squealed as I released the clutch, throwing me back into my seat. The wheel spun in my grip as the car leapt forward. One of those black and gold City of London garbage cans threw itself onto the hood–ahem–and slid away as the Jag jumped the curb. Frantically, I clamped down on the steering wheel and hit a Passat that had been parked across the street. It wasn’t my night. Still, it wasn’t going to be on my insurance so the “no-claims bonus” would live to fight another day–assuming that I did. A headlight imploded and metal squealed as the Jag’s powerful engine muscled it past the other car. The tachometer needle buried itself in the red, and I smelled burning transmission fluid and oil and hoped it wasn’t all from my brand new car. I’d always wanted a Jag since I was a little kid. It’s a seriously cool car, believe me. It almost made the whole dead-bodies-roachman-fleeing-from-scary-dude thing worth it.

Suddenly we were free, and I yanked the wheel over to the right side of the road.

The road ahead of me was clear but for a line of pedestrian-controlled traffic lights blinking into the horizon, while suddenly-majestic, marble-faced mansions crowded the sidewalk on one side of me and Hyde Park’s gloomy darkness looked decidedly menacing on the other. I blew through two intersections before I checked the rear-view mirror, figuring I’d put enough distance in between me and the man in black.

I really needed to stop thinking, period.

The man in black was following me.

He was persistent, I’ll give him that.

He moved in a peculiar kind of hopping run. It’s hard to explain. His feet barely touched the street, but where they did they left smoking holes in the asphalt. That’s never a good sign. I mean, as signs go. It’s the kind of sign that makes me think: fly, you fools! So, of course, I reflexively stomped on the brakes and lurched forward in my seat, my seatbelt cutting painfully into my chest, because slamming on the brakes was obviously the ‘unexpected’ thing, and well, sometimes the only way you get to walk away is when you do something completely out of the ordinary. Like stopping to face a homicidal-ground-melting-maniac in a living coat.

He made a sound like a pair of sneakers in a washing machine as he hit the back bumper and went over the roof.

Score one for the unexpected.

I took some small amount of pleasure when he cartwheeled through the air in front of the car and slammed into the street.

Okay, it wasn’t small at all. It was a huge amount of pleasure. The only small thing about it was the amount of time it lasted before it became bowel-clenching fear.

For a moment, the only sounds were the purr of the engine and the jingle of a chewing gum commercial that was playing on the radio. It was promising a minty white smile and super fresh breath. I hadn’t even realized it was on. There was something utterly incongruous about the too-happy jingle providing the soundtrack for the man in black’s rise as he got to his hands and knees, shook his head, and then stood.

He looked up, and his cold dead eyes found me behind the wheel.

The advert changed to a tampon commercial–just what someone was going to need to mop up all of my blood if he got his hands on me.

We both reacted at the same time.

He threw back a wing of his overcoat and went for his gun.

I hit the accelerator.

He grew rapidly in my windshield and then stepped aside at the last minute, one clawed hand lashing out towards me. It shattered the windshield into tiny crystals that were only held together by the sheet by safety plastic that coated the glass, and then sparked through the frame.

For a moment I thought he might be able to stop the car through sheer physical strength, but modern vehicles are designed with crumple zones, and so the metal simply gave way in his hands. To be honest, as outcomes went, that wasn’t much better. The Jag lurched forward and I left him behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t see out of the shattered windshield, and the car suddenly bounced upwards at a crazy angle. Resistance on the gas pedal ceased entirely, and my foot hit the floor. The engine screamed, the wheels spinning freely.

Suddenly, the man in black’s fist shattered the driver’s side window.

I felt his knuckles impact my chin milliseconds after the broken glass cut it to ribbons.

 

To Be Continued in Next Month’s Issue.